Expect Skepticism as Thein Sein Pledges to Act Against Riot Instigators

By Aung Zaw 8 July 2014

In a speech broadcast on state radio Monday night, Burmese President Thein Sein vowed to take action against the instigators of recent riots in Mandalay, but the pledge will be met with a cautious reception.

This skepticism is understandable as the president and government failed to take action after previous violence that rocked major Burmese cities Meiktila, Lashio, Pegu and Sittwe.

Many believe that some powerful people, both in the government and outside, have been financing the anti-Muslim campaign that began shortly after the opposition National League for Democracy won a victory in the April 2012 by-elections.

Many in dissident circles have a strong suspicion that powerful leaders who benefitted hugely from the old regime are trying to divert attention from the serious political and social issues facing the country, as well as to gain political legitimacy ahead of the 2015 national election.

Before this anti-Muslim violence spread across Burma, the country was in the midst of a sea change as the military government was replaced by a nominally civilian one after elections in 2010. Although the polls were widely regarded as rigged, Burma was seen as a promising country full of hope and optimism.

The government freed political prisoners, lifted censorship, initiated talks with ethnic armed groups, and even suspended the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam project in the north—considered to be a cue to Western governments, particularly the United States.

Encouraged by the courageous decision to suspend the controversial dam project, the public and activists asked the government to stop other major Chinese-funded projects in the country. In Rangoon and Mandalay, where residents have long railed against growing Chinese influence, activists planned to launch anti-China rallies and media became vocal in decrying projects linked to Burma’s giant neighbor.

Enjoying newfound freedoms, people also began to question government’s performance and its dubious link to the past regime’s leadership, and the widespread human rights abuses and corruption under military rule.

Major street protests—called the largest demonstrations in Burma for years—were also held in cities, including Mandalay, to demand electricity 24 hours a day as major cities were dogged by blackouts, some lasting six hours or longer.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

But then there came a carefully calculated diversion—to play the religion card and stoke deep-seated Islamophobia among Burmese Buddhists.

Under the self-styled reformist administration, we saw the first wave of violence between the Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese in Arakan State in mid-2012. Then violence began to spread to major cities in the heartland of Burma. The 969 movement and the campaign by extremist monks to “protect race and religion” came into full swing.

It is not only for its inaction that the government’s role in the violence has been called into question, but its ambiguous role in possibly supporting 969 and the anti-Muslim movement is also noted.

Some senior officials working in the President’s Office did not hide their hatred of Burma’s Muslim population as they posted anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media, encouraging Burmese media to take sides.

Ironically, inter-communal strife has handed the government some political legitimacy and support as it has divided the opposition and civil society. The mood in the streets changed throughout the country—with the focus shifting away from other issues activists would like the country to be concentrating on.

Chinese and local businesses, those with close links to the government, and also perhaps those in the ruling party who made their fortunes from Chinese investment in Burma, were no doubt relieved. Several birds were killed with one stone.

Many informed sources in Rangoon have told me that funding for groups inciting hatred against Muslims and creating divisions in democratic forces came from powerful politicians and former army officers now attached to government departments or holding seats in Parliament.

Moreover, the monkhood, once the backbone of anti-regime activism, has become divided. Well-resourced extremist monks such as Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, have gained prominence.

The government has not yet to taken any action against Wirathu and other powerful extremists. Alarmingly, as Foreign Policy reported in March, Thein Sein is said to be in regular contact with members of the nationalist movement, including Wirathu. In June 2013, Thein Sein’s office issued a statement saying that 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”

Wirathu has been meeting powerful leaders including Aung Thaung, former industry minister and one of the leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. His family accumulated an immense fortune during the previous regime, and Aung Thaung continues to wield power and influence.

In any case, the campaign against Muslims has succeeded in pushing the crucial issues for Burma onto the back burner.

As Burma is chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, several majority-Muslim countries in the region have expressed concern about violence against Muslims in Burma. And as the year goes on, more high-level regional meetings are set to be held in the country, including November’s Asean Summit, at which US President Barack Obama is expected.

With Obama’s second Burma trip—after becoming the first sitting president to pay a visit to the country in 2012—just four months away, religious violence has broken out once again, the government is embarking on a renewed crackdown on the media and Thein Sein’s government has proposed new laws that could restrict religious freedom .Tensions also remain high with the ethnic armed groups that reside on Burma’s mountainous borders, and who asses the ongoing peace process as somewhere between going nowhere and collapsing in the near future.

The irony is that to the United States, Burma is Obama’s foreign policy success story. But this self-congratulatory claim was always premature.

Recently, Obama told West Point cadets that if Burma succeeds, “we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.” Although recognizing the perils and troubles in the process, Obama praised the “courageous process” undergone by Burma.

Inside the country, we see hope and optimism fading fast as promises to reform are revealed to be hollow.

People now say that the true colors of the Thein Sein regime are on display, and the masks are falling off.

In November, when Air Force One lands in Burma—probably this time in Naypyidaw—Obama should be informed that he will be shaking the bloodstained hands of cowards who turned one of the most resource-rich countries in Southeast Asia into a failed state.

Many Burmese are still convinced that Thein Sein, who served faithfully as prime minister in the previous repressive regime, is just a puppet of the former dictator Than Shwe—and not the reformist he would like us to think.